Friday, January 05, 2007

Erin Go Bragh

Basically, my visit to Ireland was one huge postcard. Everywhere we looked we saw some typically Irish scene, some stereotypical celtic stuff. Examples:

These are photos from a little town called Howth right outside of Dublin. It was absolutely gorgeous. I couldn't believe it was real. Ireland truely is as green, fresh, sunny and healthy as it looks is pictures and movies. And it was very nice to get out of a big city for a day and do some low-key hiking. We walked up a hill, to the top of a cliff overlooking the sea. We tramped through mud. We meandered along the boat docks. We sat on soft, thick, green grass.

I also went to a fancy Tea Party with my girls. We got dressed up, talked about important issues, drank copious amounts of Irish Breakfast and ate many little sandwiches. And we definitely sat for 2 or 3 hours in the process. It was a lot of fun receiving tea and scones instead of serving them.

There was a little bit of Guinness too (only one of these was mine; I'm holding both purely for photogenic purposes). We spent New Years at Temple Bar, one of the most famous pubs in Dublin. It was ridiculously crowded and tons of fun. We smuggled in doner kabobs and ate them in a corner while everyone else looked on in jealousy. We danced and sang to classic songs and celebrated being in such a wonderful place for a new year that will bring even more exciting new experiences.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Old Country

First experience in Hungary:
We pile into the comfortable taxi to head to our hotel from the airport. The driver proceeds out of the terminal parking area and leads us onto freeways that look rather like downtown Detroit, with bare trees and rundown housing along the side of the road, which calmed my nerves about not knowing the language that would be spoken around me. I am giddy and smiling until our chauffeur puts the pedal to the floor and all of a sudden we are careening past billboards and tiny grocery stores and weaving in and out of 10 year old fiats that are driving the legal speed limit, which is probably too fast anyway. Maybe I should have believed it was all a dream when Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" actually started playing on the radio, but while you can't die in your dreams, you certainly can in Budapest. And you can listen to a lot of horrible music, including a lite-rock rendition of "Stayin' Alive" sung by a foreign female vocalist in the hotel lobby.

The rest of our trip was not nearly as frightening. In fact, I think Budapest has been my favorite city so far on this grand European Tour. It's absolutely beautiful just to walk through the streets, with amazing architecture from nearly every century including the Parliament building, the castles and the incredibly massive St. Stephan's Basilica. We had a wonderful view of the Chain Bridge and the Danube from our very cushy hotel (I didn't want to leave). We also went to a huge market with food and traditonal hungarian wares where we were impatiently helped by vendors who didn't really seem to want our money. Europe really doesn't know how to do customer service.

The food was amazing; Blayne and I had mushroom goulas, cabbage, noodles, dumplings, cookies, christmas candies and more. I witnessed my first hang-out-over-the-pants-belly in four months. We went to another Christmas market, which actually did have some different specialty foods, but was still keepin it real with the hot wine. I also got to taste a little bit of palinka, a traditional liquor made from fruit. At 60% it tasted a little like it should go on my skin, not in my mouth. The unicum was great though, with a dark, cinnamon and peppermint flavor and a bitter orange rind after taste.

We got to see a folk music and dance show, which although was obviously only for tourists, was very fun. All the performers were wearing traditional costumes, with roughly 10 dancers, 10 violinists, a clarinetist, bassist, and a dulcimer player. The dancing was lively and jovial, with boots stomping on the floor and a carefully executed bottle dance. The girls would squeal every few measures which took me back to the days of dance competitions, only this time it was only one girl as opposed to an auditorium full of about 300. They played probably as fast as humanly possible, and what was better was that all of the performers seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience. They would laugh and make faces at each other, giving it a real spontaneous, authentic feel, whether that was true or not.

I think part of my comfort and enjoyment in the city was because it strangely felt like home, and also because of the tourguide expertise of one David Wayne. Without him this trip would not have been nearly as successful. We were able to ask for directions, find things we wanted to see, order food, and I'm sure millions of other little things I didn't even realize because we had someone there would knew it all. It's so much better visiting a place with someone who knows their way around. And it made me feel even more like I was at home, with my family and a friend I've known for over 10 years. And although I'm sure I could've felt very uncomfortable in a less globalized (not a negative attribute), post-communist city with a biting wind chill and the 1,000 year old severed hand of a saint, I felt like there was no place I would rather be.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


"So nice they named it twice." -Bill Clinton

3 1/2 Hours.
16 Steps.

In a small town in Germany, just across the border from France, hundreds of people get naked, wet and steamy every year. This place is a haven for the rich, who stay in luxurious hotels and spend their days lying in warm water and their nights playing at the casino. But, for a meager fee, it can be a relaxing one day vacation for a young american girl and her friend or family.
This place is Baden-Baden.

It's a little scary being completely naked in front of strangers for the first time. Almost like that horrible dream that you have about forgetting to dress before going to class, but it's completely real. And everyone else is naked too.
Not everyone is exactly "in shape". We're not talking 300 lbs. but there are some older ladies with some wrinkles. Some sagging. And while it's comforting to know that absolutely no one is perfect, you are shocked into realizing that one day your skin will be old and saggy too. But for now the main objective is staying warm, trying to speak broken German and not getting athletes foot.
After two hot showers with lovely water pressure that you haven't experienced in 4 months, two dry saunas in rooms decorated with tiles painted in floral motifs, and a steam room that almost puts you into a coma because of the vicious amount of menthol, you are ready for your brush and soap massage. Still naked. But those German ladies are speaking softly to one another over your head. You don't know what they're saying, but it's very soothing and relaxing. You feel at home and at ease with yourself and the rest of the women around you. You are being cleansed with natural water from the earth and with the gentle hands of a provider and care giver. It's a very earthy, mother/daughter/sister bonding experience, shall we say.
The masseuse gives you a slap on your lathered rear to signal that your massage is complete, you rinse off the remaining soap and head for the baths. In descending temperature, you lounge for at least 30 minutes in about 4 different baths; one with bubbles, one decorated with a statue of a bathing venus, and one in which you swim around so as not to get too cold. You finish off in the cold water plunge. This experience is similar to middle school; it feels awful on your way in and incredible once you're out.
You're then wrapped in hot towels by more wonderful German ladies in matching white shorts and tank tops, and taken to a room to cover yourself in lightly scented lotion and eat a little square of dark chocolate. Just when you believe you are as relaxed as you could possibly ever be, the ladies ask if you are ready for "sleep," and give the international gesture of two hands placed, pillow-like, below the head turned horizontal. You agree, and are escorted into a large room that looks like an orphanage sleeping quarters. The ladies wrap you up burrito-style with warm sheets in your own bed, where you are expected to take a nap for the last 30 minutes of your program.
After awakening from one of the best naps you've ever had, dressing, and exiting the building, you believe that the temperature must have risen at least 5 degrees while you were inside and that the cute little town of Baden-Baden is even more adorable than the first time you saw it. And the sun seems a little brighter.